It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up


In the poem by Emily Dickinson "It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up," the main character has just lost a loved one and feels such devastation that cannot be put into words, but could only be described as "not" something. She feels such loss at her loved one's burial, that his "burial reminded [her] of [hers]". He has been a huge part of her life, so when he dies, that part of her dies also, and is buried with him. She cannot put the feeling of devastation into words, for if pain can be described, it has a mortal limit and is bearable. The pain of the character in this poem is beyond that. In philosophy, one cannot describe chaos or God using affirmative words; one has to say "chaos is not, God is not." Likewise in the poem, Emily Dickinson uses negations rather than affirmative statements to describe her anguish as an intangible entity. She does not even use a word such as "agony", or "grief" anywhere in the poem in order to emphasize that her feeling cannot be condensed into a simple word. Instead, she describes the chaos she feels by using negations of opposing forces, "it was not fire it was not heat", and then saying that she feels them all at once.

Emily Dickinson uses imagery to make the shock she feels more vivid to the reader. Her life "was fitted on a frame and [she] could not breathe without a key." This metaphor reminds the reader of the stifling feeling in the throat and gasping for air, when one sobs violently but tears don't come. She does not have the "key". She cannot help herself because she has lost everything, the "key" must come from somewhere else. "And 'twas like midnight some when everything that ticked has stopped and space stares all around." This is like the first feeling of shock, when the conception of time and space is completely different. The feeling of shock is like hanging in the middle of space, outside of measured time.

What the character feels can be best described as "utter nothing", or "Chaos without chance or spar." It always makes one feel better when he can change something or turn the feeling of nothing into something else. But here she cannot even feel anger because in death there is no one to feel the anger against. She is without "even a report of land to justify despair." The character does not even feel hopeless because she has forgotten what hope - "land" -feels like. The feeling of the character is so overwhelming, unbearable, and intangible that it cannot be described in words, and can only be expressed through negations of emotions and powerful imagery.